This strikes me as an uncommonly beautiful image of the common beaked sedge. I have had a fondness for sedges ever since I took one of my first ecology classes, when my fiery Scottish professor taught me, in a thick, R-rolling brogue, that “Rrrrushes are rrrround, and sedges have edges!” I have no idea what else I was meant to learn in that class, yet his words popped into my head, loud and clear, when I spotted this lovely photo of Carex utriculata.
Carex is the foremost genus in the sedge family, and sedges are easily recognized by their triangular (edged) flowering stems. The last part of the mnemonic, which I imagine my professor left out because it is not nearly as catchy as the rest, is that “grasses have knees”. The knees of grasses are the joint-like nodes found along their round, hollow stems.
While differentiating between rushes, sedges, and grasses is relatively easy, identifying sedges to the species level is much more difficult. Carex species are numerous (estimated to be about 2000), flowering parts are tiny, and sometimes both the inflorescence and the fruit are required for a positive identification. Thankfully, a number of excellent sources are available to those who want to invest the time in learning sedge identification. For eastern North Americans, Morton Arboretum’s Applied Field Identification of Sedges and Rushes (PDF) provides excellent information along with basic keys and species data. Sedge enthusiasts should consult printed field guides for their regions; good examples include the Field Guide to the Sedges of the Pacific Northwest and An Illustrated Guide to Common Grasses, Sedges and Rushes of New Zealand.
The Morton Arboretum identification guide notes that Carex utriculata is a member of a group of wetland sedges termed the “bottlebrush and bladder sedges”. The perigynium, or bottle-shaped bract surrounding each female flower, is an important identifier for the bladder sedges. Carex utriculata’s perigynia appear inflated and papery-brown. This characteristic provides the name for the species (an utricle is a leather bag or bottle). Carex utriculata is found in a variety of open wetlands throughout Canada and the northern USA. Plants grow in tufts or dense clumps. Carex utriculata is often referred to by the synonym Carex rostrata var. utriculata.